Doctors going digital. Social media: friend or foe?


Should social media be used professionally? Will it give you more credibility or the opposite: will it tamper with medical ethics and legal obligations you have? The answer is: it depends.


Very often, social media creates the illusion of safety and comes across as a harmless way of communication, where liability can be avoided by simply removing a “bad” post from your Twitter or Facebook page. Such false perceptions can get you in trouble, says Lorraine Fleck, lawyer at Fleck & Chumak LLP in Toronto. According to Fleck, evidence from social media is now widely used in court and everything that you share on the Internet can be found even long after you remove your post.


“Evidence is evidence — it doesn’t matter if it’s in digital or paper form,” she says. “Evidence from social media accounts may be relevant in a lawsuit and a court can compel the disclosure of such evidence.”


If you are using patient testimonials on your social media or blog, Fleck recommends obtaining your patient’s written consent prior to posting their comments; otherwise you may be successfully sued for breaching confidentiality and privacy laws. Further, testimonials can result in competition and advertising law violations. For example, Fleck says, testimonials from fictional patients violate Canadian unfair competition laws. Canada’s Competition Bureau has made enforcements against fake online testimonials and reviews one of its priorities.


To be on the safe side in the digital world, Fleck generally recommends against posting anything you would not like other people to find out about in real life. As straightforward as it sounds, many people forget this rule once they are logged into their Facebook accounts.


While the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) recognizes the value of social media in improving patient care and medical education, the institution insists that doctors comply with their professional expectations, relevant legislation and codes of ethics. On its website, the CPSO advises medical professionals should “exercise caution when posting information online that relates to an actual patient,” refrain from providing medical advice to specific patients and not establish personal relations with them or people close to them to maintain appropriate professional boundaries.


The College of Naturopaths of Ontario, which is the regulatory body for the naturopathic profession, doesn’t yet have a specific set of guidelines for NDs when it comes to using social media.


“The College of Naturopaths of Ontario, which received official proclamation on July 1, 2015, will be developing a social media policy to help guide members in the use of their social platforms,” says Andrew Parr, registrar at the College.


Generally, accredited professionals have been hesitant to integrate into the use of social media because of its public form, says Rochelle Grayson, a consumer and digital media executive and technology, media and professional programs instructor at the University of British Columbia.


“Very few doctors are using social media now. Part of the reason is because it’s a regulated profession.”


Following the profession’s rules, regulations and protocol, a lot of doctors make their Facebook and Twitter profiles too formal, which social media is not, Grayson says.


“In social media, people are interested in getting to know the whole person, if a doctor has hobbies or if there is something that they are passionate about. We are now connecting with professionals at all levels, we want to know the person as much as we want to know their professional expertise.”


Many healthcare practitioners tend to stay away from social media “without really understanding how things work” and what they don’t realize is that this is just a new communication tool, Grayson says. She believes social media presents a variety of opportunities for naturopathic doctors. In addition to a conservative LinkedIn, traditional Facebook and Twitter, you can benefit greatly from visual media, such as Instagram. Grayson says social media can serve as an excellent marketing tool for your practice and a great way to network with your peers in Canada and in other corners of the world.


“It’s about education and about building your brand, about it being a vehicle to show your expertise, connecting with other doctors. For naturopathic doctors, education is probably the easiest way to get out there and to inform people on what naturopathic medicine is and how it’s used.”



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